Subcommittee backs $27.9 billion Interior spending bill

Funding includes $175 million to revitalize the National Mall, whose plan has not been updated since 1902.

The fiscal 2009 appropriations bill for environmental, park service and wildlife preservation programs became a gas price battleground Wednesday as Democrats on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee beat back a Republican effort to end a 27-year-old ban on oil and gas exploration in the outer continental shelf.

Along party lines, the panel voted 9-6 to defeat an amendment proposed by Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., that called for modifying the ban to permit exploration between 50 and 200 miles in offshore areas along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the eastern Gulf Coast.

On a voice vote, the subcommittee cleared the overall bill that would provide $27.9 billion for Interior Department and EPA programs. The total represented a $1.9 billion -- or 4.9 percent -- increase over this year's spending levels.

The funding included $175 million to revitalize the National Mall, whose plan has not been updated since 1902. Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norman Dicks, D-Wash., said the Mall "has deteriorated due to lack of investment in necessary maintenance and critical upgrades."

Peterson said scuttling the outer continental shelf exploration ban, which has been renewed by Congress every year since 1981, would give the nation access to an estimated 86 billion barrels of oil and help apply the brakes to escalating crude oil prices. They have doubled to over $130 a barrel in the last year, pushing up the average cost of gas to over $4 a gallon.

"There is no valid reason to keep Americans from the energy resources they own," Peterson said.

Democrats said attempting to increase oil supplies would have little or no effect on the market because it was being driven by the weakness of the dollar, the fear of instability in foreign oil producing nations, and massive speculation on the part of hedge funds and other large investment entities.

"Crude oil prices are not connected to supply," said Dicks, adding that the speculation reminded him of the Enron scandal in 2001.

Democrats also contended that the outer continental shelf areas that contain the bulk of proven oil reserves -- those in the Western Gulf -- are open to drilling.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y, charged that oil companies had been intentionally delaying production in the open areas in anticipation that oil prices will continue to soar.

Peterson was expected to continue pressing his amendment in the markup of the underlying bill in the full Appropriations Committee and on the House floor.

The measure would not affect a separate presidential ban on drilling in the protected parts of the outer continental shelf that does not lapse until 2012. President Bush has said he has no intention of eliminating the drilling ban.

Peterson, who has announced his intent to retire at the end of his current term, has crusaded for lifting the moratorium throughout his six-term career. He succeeded in attaching a rider to end the ban in the committee version of the fiscal 2006 Interior spending bill only to see the full House vote to restore it amid heavy lobbying by environmental groups and officials from coastal states.

The White House had sought a cut of over $1 billion for Interior and EPA programs, leaving them $1.6 billion short of what would be needed to maintain current operations, Dicks said.

A $350 million increase would go for programs serving Native Americans. The increase includes $181 million for health initiatives and $118 million for law enforcement on reservations.

The National Park Service would get $2.64 billion, including an increase of $158 million for the operations expenses of the 391 park units. The bill would continue funding for the effort to upgrade parks in time for the Service's 1916 centennial celebration.

The allocation for the National Wildlife Refuge program would be $469 million, $35 million more than this year.

The Forest Service would get an increase of $475 million over the White House's request for a total of $2.61 billion. The bill would also provide $2.9 billion for the wildland fire fighting accounts of the Interior Department and the Forest Service, $217 million more than this year and $141 million above the amount sought by the White House.

EPA would get $7.8 billion, an increase of $689 million from the White House request and $371 million more than fiscal 2008. The funding includes $850 million for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program to pay for sewage treatment projects around the country. The Bush administration had sought $555 million for the fund.

The bill would provide $160 million each to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, an increase of $15 million over fiscal 2008 levels in both cases.